Head of the Class
Waiting for something to click
By Renee Phile
I teach commas and stuff. Even through the summer. Some of my students are high-schoolers. Some are grandmas. More are in-between. Nothing thrills me more than a classroom of students who are ready — or not — to hear about where the semicolon goes or where it absolutely doesn’t belong. Nothing thrills me more than when a student asks, “Ms. Phile, could you look at this paragraph? Does it flow?” or “Hey, Ms. Phile, look at this sign I saw at the gas station. It’s missing an apostrophe. If I had a Sharpie I would have corrected it.”
Then there’s that point in the semester when all the papers, projects and tests need grading. Final exams are pending, grades are due. Everyone is exhausted and irritable, and I begin to wonder why the hell I started teaching in the first place. I spend every waking moment — at my son’s baseball games, waiting for a table at restaurants, sitting in meetings, at the stoplight — grading papers. Emails flood my inbox:
“Ms. Phile, can I have an extension on the paper?” (No way. You have known about the due date for six weeks.)
“Ms. Phile, sorry I won’t be in class today. My pigs got loose.” (True story.)
“Ms. Phile, I can’t come to class today or the rest of the week because my grandmother died.” (Hmmmm . . . that’s the third time she’s passed away. Obviously a very, very serious illness.)
“Ms. Phile, I know I haven’t done much this semester, but can I get extra credit?” (You can’t get extra credit when you didn’t get regular credit.)
“Ms. Phile, I know I didn’t turn in the past four papers, but can I turn them in still? I promise I did them.” (I can’t even reply to this one.)
“Ms. Phile, we have a beach house rented that week.” (Can I come and bring the boys?)
And my favorite how-to-endear-yourself-to-the-teacher, cringe-worthy question:
“Ms. Phile, sorry I missed class yesterday. Did I miss anything important?” (Ouch.)
At this point in the semester I’m thinking I may go back to school for something else, maybe carpentry or piano tuning or snake charming. But, the truth is the magical moments when a student lights up and “gets it” make my job amazing. The moment when a student’s writing improves; the moment when a student overcomes the fear of talking in front of others; the moment when I notice students teaching each other. Those moments keep me from getting a basket and a flute.
Let me invite you into my summer class: Research papers, which they have been working on for six weeks, are due tonight by 11:55 p.m. I walk into a room of talkative students and one, who I will call Matt, pipes up from the back row:
“Ms. Phile, what will it take for you to extend the due date until tomorrow? Money? Doughnuts? Reese’s cups? I know how you love Reese’s cups.”
“Matt, you’ve known the due date for six weeks. It’s in stone.”
An older student in the front row, who probably finished his research paper two weeks ago, rolls his eyes and mumbles under his breath, “I don’t envy your job.”
My 11 years of teaching flashed through my brain — whirlwinds, valleys, mountains, mostly mountains.
“I don’t know why not. You should,” I said. PS
Renee Phile loves being a teacher, even if it doesn’t show at certain moments.